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February 12, 2008

Paul Krugman's bizarre assertions

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman writes that "the bitterness of the fight for the Democratic nomination is, on the face of it, bizarre."  Actually, the only thing that's bizarre is why Krugman would say this about a contest that has been astonishingly civilized and free of rancor.

I don't agree with, and I don't understand, Paul Krugman.  On one hand, he insists Barack Obama cannot succeed because he is not cutthroat enough.  I don't agree with that; he is succeeding precisely because he's not engaging in Nixonian hate politics.

Bizarrely, Krugman also criticizes the Obama camp for being too cutthroat with Hillary Clinton.  I don't agree with that either; this has and continues to be a refreshingly positive campaign, even as it has become more and more intensely fought.

But I really just don't understand most of what Krugman says in his latest anti-Obama column.  First, he says the race between Clinton and Obama is bitter.  So bitter, in fact, that he finds it appropriate to compare it to "Nixonland," the "land of slander and scare, of the politics of hatred."


I've been watching this campaign pretty closely, and I think it's been upbeat and cordial.  Where's the bitterness Krugman is talking about?  Both candidates have run on the issues and avoided negative attacks.  Many of their supporters would be happy to support the other against the Republican in November.  Krugman says of Obama supporters that they "want their hero or nobody."  Huh?  I'm surrounded with Obama supporters, and I haven't met the first one who said they'd sit at home if Obama isn't the nominee.  Krugman can't see much difference between the enthusiasm for Obama and a cult of personality, of which the best example he can find is the support for George W. Bush after our toppling of Saddam Hussein.  Huh?  Although I think Bush supporters were mistaken about the nature of our victory in Iraq, I always thought that people supported Bush because they were mistaken about the facts or committed to political principles that I was not -- never that there was any "cult of personality" surrounding George W. Bush.

The truly ironic thing is that the reason the Obama campaign has caught fire is exactly because it, more than Clinton's campaign, stands for what Krugman says he wants to see: and end to the politics of hatred, an acknowledgment that "there are principles that matter more than short-term political advantage."  And yet Krugman seems reluctant to support Obama precisely because it explicitly advocates an end to the politics of hatred.  Doing that, Krugman comes close to saying in his other columns, is naive.

Krugman's judgment that Hillary Clinton ought to be the Democratic nominee for president is one with which I disagree.  I only wish that I could understand it, and Krugman's columns aren't helping.

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Clinton vs. Obama on telecom immunity

In a few days I'll post the reasons why I think Barack Obama, not Hillary Clinton, should be the democratic presidential nominee. For now, please note what happened today.

I'm not talking about the potomac primary, I'm talking about the vote in the Senate to strip retroactive immunity from civil liability for telecom companies that cooperated with the Bush administration's illegal wiretapping of American citizens without a warrant.

A "yea" vote was a vote to strip the immunity, and hold telecoms accountable when they act illegally. A "nay" vote was a capitulation to the Bush administration's rule by fiat, and a vote against the rule of law.

Yea: Barack Obama

Nay: John McCain

Absent: Hillary Clinton

Ever the proud champion of principle, Hillary doesn't actively capitulate to her opponents.  She passively capitulates.

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February 09, 2008

Modern infantilism -- does Benjamin Barber have the solution?

The subtitle of Benjamin Barber's latest book hints at his dislike of consumerism. Frustrated with the ubiquitous glorfication of "the market" in our current political discourse, Barber asks the following almost rhetorical question:

"After all, when religion colonizes every sector of what should be our multidimensional lives, we call the result theocracy; and when politics colonizes every sector of what should be our multidimensional lives, we call the result tyranny. So why, it might be asked, when the marketplace -- with its insistent ideology of consumption and its dogged orthodoxy of spending -- colonizes every sector of what should be our multidimensional lives, do we call the result liberty?" [219-220]

According to Barber, this ubiquitous "colonization" of our lives by consumer ideology has confused us about what liberty is. Libertarian apologists tell us again and again that the freedom of a consumer to choose from among different products in the marketplace is identical to (or, not inconsistent with, a prerequisite for, a consequence of) the freedom of a citizen to govern themselves. But Barber doesn't believe it for a minute. Instead, consumerism makes the achievement of genuine liberty much more difficult. Consumers are conditioned to pursue what Barber calls first-order desires -- what we want, not what we want to want. We want the big SUV because it looks shiny and smells like new leather, but we want to want a vehicle that doesn't contribute to global warming or increase our dependence on foreign oil. The mark of maturity is the ability to resist first-order desires for the sake of second-order desires, and consumers, like infants, are incapable of this. As Barber puts it, in our consumer society "the empire of impulse is allowed to trump the empire of will, and then is rewarded with a crown called liberty." [221]

Barber has a good point. To the extent that we act as consumers, our success is measured by how quickly and often our desires are satisfied. The means for satisfying our desires are almost always commercial -- when we want to feel sexier, elevate our social status, assuage our guilt, have fun, or find love, we can always purchase something that helps us satisfy our desires. The other traditional vehicles for achieving timeless human longings are ignored and underappreciated in our consumer culture. And this is a difficult problem to even identify, because consumer thinking and behavior are "omnilegitimate." Consumerism doesn't dominate our lives like communism tried to dominate the lives it affected. It doesn't forbid us from thinking and acting on alternatives, it merely conditions us not to recognize that there may in fact be other valuable ways of acting. Barber quotes Neil Postman: "No Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity, and history. As [Aldous Huxley] saw it, people will come to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared what that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one." [251]

The question is how to overcome puerile consumerism without taking comfort in "antimodern ascriptive identities drawn from religious fundamentalism and ethnic extremism."

Here is where the book disappoints. Barber argues for several different outcomes without making clear what the connection is between them, or if he thinks there are any connections at all. The major concern of the book seems to be the question of responsibility. Barber's goal is to redirect us away from a juvenile conception of freedom as the absence of anyone telling us what to do, and toward a more mature freedom as self-governance -- away from negative liberty, and towards postive liberty. Barber argues that we should all "grow up," exercise more responsibility, and accept mature constraints on our behavior. But how to do this without sacrificing our freedom to a tyrannical government or a dictatorial religion?

That's a great question, so it's disappointing that Barber never really tackles it. In large stretches of the book, he writes as if the main problem was the excess of limits imposed by the market. Big business is bad because it dominates the marketplace and prevents smaller operators from succeeding economically. Religion is bad because it dictates outcomes and prevents people from exercising freedom of choice. [259-260] American culture is bad because it's ubiquitous and prevents third-world singers from succeeding as artists without caving in to the demands of globalized pop music.[264-267] Capitalism is bad because it ignores the real needs of poverty-stricken people in its quest to satisfy the faux needs of the wealthy.[316] All of these things are certainly objectionable. But Barber doesn't explain what, if anything, they have to do with the problems of infantilizing consumerism and the refusal to take responsibility for what we do. In the end, we're not sure if Barber's main beef with modern consumerism is that it harms its participants, or that it doesn't allow enough people to participate.

Benjamin Barber ought to write some books about the injustices of the market. But I wish he'd also finish this book about the tension between the need for freedom and the need to take responsibility. Consumed is a good statement of the problem, but because of its tangential digressions, it doesn't provide a thoughtful answer.

February 07, 2008

We don't need a President McCain

John McCain, the certain Republican presidential nominee, sees the 2008 elections like this:

Often elections in this country are fought within the
margins of small differences. This one will not be. We are arguing about hugely consequential things. Whomever the Democrats nominate, they would govern this country in a way that will, in my opinion, take
this country backward to the days when government felt empowered to take from us our freedom to decide for ourselves the course and qualityof our lives; to substitute the muddled judgment of large and expanding federal bureaucracies for the common sense and values of the American people; to the timidity and wishful thinking of a time when we averted our eyes from terrible threats to our security that were so plainly gathering strength abroad.
In other words, McCain is a committed Republican, notwithstanding the screetches coming from nutjobs like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter.  And that's precisely why either Obama or Clinton should be elected in the fall.

Like most Republicans, McCain fails to see that threats to our "freedom to decide for ourselves" can come from sources other than the government.  It's a childlike view of the world -- maybe not as destructive as the "with us or against us" approach of GWB, but it's still naive.  After eight years of W, the last thing we need is another ideologue who wants to "shrink the government" in the face of huge private accumulations of capital.  Multinational corporations aren't democratic, and the result of continued Republican rule will be that we exchange rule by consent of the governed for rule by the caprice of the tycoons.

What we need to fear from the next President is not that he or she will "avert [their] eyes from terrible threats to our security" from abroad -- none of the mainstream candidates would do that -- but that they will fail to see how extremely far to to the right this country has drifted at the expense of our public intitutions from schools to banks, and at the expense of our community life as the middle class melts away into opposing camps of rich and poor.

Perhaps after Carter, we needed a Republican president.  Perhaps.  But after Reagan, Bush, Clinton (yes, Clinton too), and Bush Jr., what we need in this country is a good liberal.  Either Clinton or Obama would be much better for this country in 2008 than John McCain would be.

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February 06, 2008

How democracy works

The New York Times editorializes about "how democracy is supposed to work":

In an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America,” on Monday, Mr. Obama’s wife, Michelle, was asked if she would work to support Mrs. Clinton if she won. “I’d have to think about that,” she replied.

Mrs. Obama quickly got back on her talking points, stressing party unity. But her unguarded answer was similar to what we heard from Obama supporters in e-mail messages that we received after endorsing Mrs. Clinton. Many of those readers said they would not bother to vote if Mr. Obama lost the nomination. That is not the way democracy is supposed to work.

I agree with the Times that Obama supporters ought to support Clinton if (and it's a big, big if) she wins the nomination.

But the Times is wrong about democracy. This is exactly how democracy is "supposed to work." Voters can vote for whomever they want, for whatever reasons they want. They can choose not to vote at all. They can do whatever they want for reasons that don't make any sense at all.

In fact, this freedom of voters to behave irrationally is the strongest argument that's been made against democracy as a form of government. It's been the strongest argument against democracy for thousands of years.

The problem has always been that in a democracy, we defer to the will of the people. And the people, unlike philosopher-kings, can and often do act irrationally (insert snarky comment about the re-election of George W. Bush here).

February 05, 2008

Where I stand on the Hyde Park question

Warning: what follows is actually just a long-winded plug for a blog I stumbled upon today: Hyde Park Progress.

Is the Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park a good place to live, or is it a place to commute into because you wouldn't dream of actually living here? From 1989 until early 1993, I lived in Hyde Park. I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, and my memories of the neighborhood were great. So great that ever since I left the U of C I've been trying in various ways to get back. In 2006, I succeeded. I'm now one of the few U of C emergency medicine residents who actually chooses to live in Hyde Park.

I still love the neighborhood. But. . . since I moved back, the rosy glow of old memories has worn off. I've started to notice Hyde Park's flaws. Yes, it does have flaws. There are, I now admit, rational reasons why so many people who study and work at the University of Chicago don't choose to live here. The best reason, by far, remains the fact that Chicago has so many world-class urban neighborhoods. You've got to pick the one you like the most. I will never argue that living in Bucktown or Lincoln Park or the West Loop sucks.

But, we were talking about Hyde Park's flaws.

As much as I love Hyde Park, my return to the neighborhood has convinced me that it has problems. In no particular order, they are:

  • Not enough commercial activity. A lot of folks complain about the lack of retail, but the problem extends beyond that. For example, last summer when my car broke down on lake shore drive, I had the hardest time finding a towing service in the neighborhood, and then I couldn't find a garage on the south side that would fix Subarus. Solution: pay tons of money to tow my car up to a garage near North and Elston. I was in Chicago, but it felt like I was in Last Chance, Colorado, needing to get my car, somehow, to a real city like Denver where someone could fix it. Weird feeling.
  • Not enough nightlife. It's not like I'm asking for a bar on every corner. Not every vibrant urban neighborhood has to be like Wrigleyville (and thank God they aren't). But one of the pleasures of living in a big city is being able to go out at night to hang out. In Hyde Park, there's maybe one or two coffee shops in the whole neighborhood open after 8pm, and none after midnight. (The Dunkin Donuts doesn't count, sorry.) You can count the number of restaurants open after about 10pm on the fingers of one hand, and after midnight? Nada. For an ER resident working strange hours, this sometimes hurts. We actually do better than most people think with actual bars, even though no one who doesn't live here (and many who do) have no idea where the bars are. The Cove? Falcon Inn? The UofC Pub? I challenge any of my residency colleagues to tell me where these places are. I bet you can't do it.
  • No hotels. We have a Ramada, but if you want to visit Hyde Park and the Ramada's full, Chinatown is your next closest bet.

    Looking at lists like this, you can see that the problems boil down to not having as much economic activity (day and night, commercial and residential) as we could given our population density and our central location in a world class city. When graduate student Amadou Cisse was shot and killed this winter in front of his apartment south of the Midway, the most insightful comment about the killing that I saw was from someone writing into the Maroon saying something like this: Forget about all the solutions the University is proposing -- more police patrols, more safety phones, more nighttime shuttle buses around the campus. Instead, focus on getting more nightlife in the neighborhood. More businesses, more bars, more restaurants all mean more pedestrians at night and fewer opportunities for dumb-ass teenagers with guns to find some solitary soul out on the sidewalk with no one around to witness the easy armed robbery and murder.

    Unfortunately, this view that I've come to hold -- that Hyde Park needs more economic activity -- doesn't seem to be shared by all the residents here. I'm slowly coming to believe that there are a group of old-timers in Hyde Park who exert a significant influence on neighborhood events and are committed to defending the status-quo without much ability to discriminate between change that improves and change that degrades. For them, any change is a threat, and so they oppose it.

    Several episodes got me thinking that this might be the case. First, there's an abandoned building about two blocks south of where I live called Doctor's Hospital, and last fall the University proposed tearing it down to put up a hotel. Perfect! But the neighbors bitched and complained, saying that a vibrant hotel in hotel-starved Hyde Park was inconsistent with the character of the neighborhood, and that the old building which has sat vacant and boarded up for several years now ought to be preserved. And so it sits, boarded up and vacant still.

    Then there's the stink about the proposed high-rise condo planned for the parking lot at the corner of 56th and Cornell. Say what you will about the architecture, but it's hard to say it's less beautiful than the current parking lot is. Nonetheless, there's plenty of neighborhood opposition, with people whining about blocked views and about how the design isn't right for the neighborhood. As if the neighbors don't live in the middle of a CITY, and as if the character of Hyde Park is somehow defined by three-story limestone buildings built in 1924.

    Finally, Harper Court, a collection of retail units on 53rd street, many of which are vacant because the design isn't conducive to pedestrian traffic. Plans are floated every year about refurbishing this area on a busy commercial street, but progress is agonizingly slow in part because the neighborhood activists almost always complain about any proposal. I suppose they'd like to keep it the way it is forever.

    Now that I've arrived at my mature evaluation of Hyde Park -- a fabulous place with a few problems -- I have to say that the Hyde Park Progress blog is pretty fabulous too. I don't always agree with them, of course, but they seem to get it right most of the time.